Hattie Big Sky draws upon the experience of the author’s own grandmother to create this enthralling story of hard-won optimism and frontier grit.
*Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. Delacorte, 2006. 283 pages
Recommended for: ages 12-15 and up
Hattie Brooks is only sixteen when an unknown uncle dies and leaves her a 340-acre claim in Montana (“Bring warm clothes and a cat,” advises a neighbor). Soon she’s on a westbound train, heading to the frontier with hopes of “proving up” her homestead. An orphan from the age of five, Hattie has never had a permanent home: this chance is like a bolt from the blue Montana sky. But Montana is far from welcoming in January, and the house on her claim is no better than a shack. When Karl and Perilee Meuller (the friendly neighbors who met her at the railroad station) say good night and return to their own house, we feel Hattie’s desolation. She has a lot to learn and a lot of toughening-up to do. While far-flung neighbors like the Muellers, Rooster Jim and Leafie Purvis lend a hand, the real work is up to Hattie. It’s not just a claim she’s proving up; it’s herself too.
Blizzard and drought furrow the land; debt and weariness furrow the brow. Besides, it’s 1918 and America is at war. The pressure is on to prove one’s patriotism by throwing suspicion on people with German surnames. Hattie is further pressured by Traft Martin, scion of the county’s most prominent ranching family, to sell her claim. Traft is the closest thing to a villain in this piece, but he’s no moustache-twirling stereotype. He struggles with his own problems and the solution to their conflict is far from predictable.
Kirby Larson based this story on the real Hattie Inez Brooks, her own great-grandmother. Discovering a record of the actual claim number led her to dive into the journals and memoirs of other Montana pioneers, and many of the events she describes are actual happenings, folded neatly into the plot like the raisins in Perilee’s wartime spice cake (recipe included, along with Hattie’s Lighter-than-Lead Biscuits). Readers who groove on the details can get right down in the dirt with Hattie as she put in her first flax crop and disciplines her first set of roosting hens. Loss and pain are part of this life: It seems the misfortune of one can plow a deeper furrow in the heart than the misfortune of millions. But joy and triumph balance it out. Prayers ascend with hope, and the story comes to a satisfying if unexpected conclusion.
Overall Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Categories: Historical fiction, Young Adult, Starred Review, Award Winners, Character Values